A person of interest in the disappearance of Iowa State University student Tong Shao lived in the area where Iowa City police found a car associated with her that was discovered to have a body in the trunk Friday.
Iowa City Police Lt. Mike Brotherton said that person is now in China, something that doesn’t sit right with police.
“It is suspicious that one of her friends ... has gone back to China,” Brotherton said Saturday. “That’s highly suspicious. That’s one of the things we are trying to track down.”
It also could pose problems should extradition become necessary.
“I’ve personally never had that type of issue arrive in a case,” Iowa City Police Sgt. Scott Gaarde said. “There’s going to be some obstacles we are going to have to overcome.”
For now, Brotherton said police cannot confirm that the body found in the truck of the beige 1997 Toyota Camry with Kentucky license plates is that of Shao, a 20-year-old ISU junior from China. Brotherton said he is hopeful that an autopsy scheduled for Saturday will lead to a positive identification and give police more information on the case that is currently being treated as a homicide.
The Camry was discovered at Dolphin Lake Point Enclave on Friday. Police believe the vehicle — and the body in the trunk — had been there for “an extended period of time,” Brotherton said. Shao was first reported missing on Sept. 17, but Ames police said her friends last heard from her on Sept. 8 when Shao reported she was in Iowa City to visit a friend and was heading to Minnesota to visit other friends.
Because her friends did not realize she was missing for more than a week, investigators got a late start on trying to find her, Brotherton said.
“When Ames figured out ‘we got a problem here,’ a week and a half went by,” he said.
After receiving word of her disappearance, the Ames Police Department contacted law enforcement agencies in the region — including the Iowa City Police Department — and requested their assistance. Brotherton said police in Iowa City tracked down her friends and people she knew in Iowa City. That led investigators to Dolphin Lake Point, where the Camry was found.
Brotherton said there’s a “high probability” the body in the trunk is Shao. The body had no obvious injuries, but Brotherton said those injuries could be masked by the amount of time the body was in the trunk.
“Due to the length of time the body was probably in that location, given the warm weather, there’s probably not a lot we can see readily until the pathologist gets in there and starts really scrutinizing the body,” he said.
Police are also hopeful the autopsy will narrow down the date of death.
“For now, one of the things we have to figure out for certain — is that her?” Brotherton said. “We have to keep all of our options open. We have to be careful we don’t overlook anything.”
Police said Shao had a phone and there was a phone found in the vehicle, but Brotherton doesn’t know if it was hers. Information on her phone could be useful in creating a better timeline of Shoa’s disappearance and her whereabouts. Police also will be going through the Camry on Saturday and looking for additional evidence, such as fingerprints.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the car we’re going to be sifting through,” Brotherton said. “Right now, we don’t have anything in the car that definitely points to her.”
Police said they are certain that, even if the body in the vehicle is Shao, that there is no threat to the public.
“If it is her, we don’t believe there’s a person out in the community who is hurting folks,” Brotherton said. “There’s definitely a connection between her disappearance and a person of interest. 0ne of those persons has taken a plane to China.”
After the autopsy and processing the Camry, Brotherton said police — who are being aided by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation — should have more information on the case.
“We’ll have some good answers on Monday,” he said.
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